Supta Virasana – Reclining Hero Pose
Not only do I love doing this pose, but I love teaching it so much! I feel like virasana (and even more so supta virasana) is a pose that people have a lot of ego about, but really it’s a pose that you can learn a lot about yourself in. It is an excellent pose for stretching your quadriceps, psoas muscles, and even your shins and tops of your feet. However, I find so many people feel like they “suck” at the pose if they are not lying flat on their backs, so they will contort their bodies in strange ways to try to get flat on their back. The problem with doing that is that your knees are in a very vulnerable position in virasana and supta virasana. While in this pose, it is SO important to actually listen to your body and not push yourself, otherwise you could end up feeling stuck in the pose, or worse, injuring your knees. Whenever I teach these poses, I give the option to stay in virasana or if your body allows, to work towards supta. Once everyone in the class gets to the spot they’re choosing to stop in, I sometimes like to tell the true story about how I once went to a workshop where we stayed in supta virasana for 15 minutes. I then say, “If you feel like you might die if you stay in the pose you’re currently in for 15 minutes, please come out of the pose a bit and honour your boundaries.” Guaranteed more than half of the class comes out of the pose a little bit. I love practicing the pose because it’s pretty relaxing for me and I do get a gentle stretch in my quads from it. My quads, as strong as they are, are extremely open, so I rarely feel a stretch there and supta virasana only gives me a gentle stretch there, but it feels lovely in my body. I learned from this pose that I arch my back too much, and I always work on lengthening my tailbone more in the direction of my knees. I never really felt how overly arched my back was in reclining poses until I figured that out in supta virasana. The amazing opportunity to learn more about how your body functions in this pose is just one of the reasons why I LOVE this pose!
Supta Hasta Padangusthasana – Reclining Hand to Big Toe Pose
Supta hasta padangusthasana is a relaxing pose that also stretches your hamstrings. It is done lying on your back with one leg extended on the ground and the other leg extended up into the air. The traditional variation of the pose is done by hooking your peace fingers to your big toe and extending your leg toward the sky. However, I find that in our society, the average persons’ hamstrings are actually rather tight, so if they were to grab their big toe and fully extend their leg, they either wouldn’t be able to, it would be very painful, and/or it would really pull on your back muscles and this person wouldn’t be able to res their head comfortably on the ground. So if this is the case, the pose can be modified with or without a prop. With a prop, the person would use a straight and place it over the ball of their foot as they extend their leg toward straight, they could hold onto the strap at a comfortable spot for their body’s needs. Without a prop, I would suggest to interlace their fingers behind their thigh (closer down toward their hip rather than toward their knee). The benefit of placing hands closer down toward the hips is that you push your leg into your hands and pull your hands into your leg, this stabilizes your hamstring insertion and grounds your hip allowing you to lengthen your leg to the best of your ability in a safe way. I feel that this pose is truly accessible to anyone no matter how tight their hamstrings AND it benefits everyone no matter how flexible their are! The versatility of this pose is one of the many reasons that I LOVE it so much!
Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana – Forearm Wheel Pose
Dwi pada viparita dandasana literally translates to two legged inverted staff pose, but I think that calling it “forearm wheel pose” creates a better visual. This pose is pretty advanced and I wouldn’t recommend it for beginners, but it is a beautiful back bend and shoulder opener. This pose requires a lot of core strength and quad strength, as well as very open shoulders and core muscles. I know that may seem like a contrast, but I have found over the years that you can’t just be open, you must also be strong to maintain integrity in your pose. The same goes for your shoulders, if they are super open, but you have no strength in them, you won’t be able to hold the pose. I usually get into the pose by first coming into urdhva dhanurasana and then lowering down one forearm at a time. From here you can choose to walk your feet in closer to your hands or walk your feet further away straightening your legs. If you walk your feet in, you must keep pushing your heart away from your feet while trying not to overly clench your glutes, this will help you maintain an even curve throughout your spine. If you walk your feet further away coming towards straight legs, you must have warmed up your hamstrings and hip flexors, and even here push your heart away from your feet. Though it is a deeper back bend than urdhva dhanurasana, it may be a little less intensive on your biceps and definitely your wrists. I find this pose to look absolutely beautiful and effortless for those that can do it, images of this pose make it seem a whole lot easier than it really is. The fact that this pose looks so open and easy, but is in fact very intense and requires tonnes of strength is why I LOVE it so much!
Adho Mukha Svanasana – Downward Facing Dog
Downward dog is maybe the most well known yoga asana, even to those who do not practice yoga. Many people visualize this pose before they actually do a class and it may be one of the most widely practiced asanas that I can think of. So for a pose that is so well known and widely practiced, you’d think it would be the easiest pose, right? Wrong! Downward Dog done without proper alignment and engagement can actually cause pain and harm. As we grow up and get used to driving, working at a computer, cooking, etc. our hand muscles tend to tense up. So for many of us, when we first get into down dog, there is wrist pain. This is because our hands are too tense to space out the weight evenly through the “four corners” of your palm. When you’re able to find this rooting, you’ll find that there is zero wrist pain associated with downward dog and that it can actually be a therapeutic pose for the wrists. Learning that engagement in downward dog really helps to set your wrists up for hand/arm balances in your practice. Shoulders tend to be tense for the same reasons as the hands and therefore many people round in their upper back. Once you learn to soften there and draw the shoulders away from the ears, you can get some really nice traction in the pose. By being firmly rooted in your hands while drawing your weight up and back, really helps you to decompress your spine. The hamstrings are another common problem area, everyone wants to get their feet flat on the ground even though this isn’t practical for many people. Learning to bend the knees if your hamstrings are tight will help you to find that length along your entire spine. Often times if you look at pictures of people in downward dog, their upper backs are long, but they are rounding in their low backs close to the tailbone, this is really common and hard to feel in the body. This is another case where you should be bending your knees if this happens to you, that way your pelvis is free to do an anterior tilt, creating length in the low back. So with all that in mind, does downward dog still seem like an “easy” pose? Probably not! This pose invites your entire body to the party and there are so many things to think about, but that’s why I LOVE it so much!
Virabhadrasana 1 – Warrior 1 Pose
Warrior 1 seems like such an easy and accessible pose, but it has so much intricacy. Ideally, in the pose, your stance will be long enough that your front knee is bending to a 90 degree angle and your front heel lines up with your back heel with the back foot at 45 degrees. In this long stance, you are also doing your best to square our hip points to bring them parallel with the top of your mat. Your back leg is strong and solid and the arch of your back foot is strong and lifted (which can be deceptively difficult). Lengthening your tailbone so your entire spine can be long and your ribs are not poking forward. Lastly, arms are reaching toward the sky, but shoulders are relaxed. The thing I love about this pose is that even though that is the general form of the pose, there are SO many ways to modify the pose. The pose would need to be modified mostly if your hips are too tight and you’re not able to square your hips. If this is the case, simply widen your stance so that heels are more like hip width apart. It’s really easy for me to forget about lengthening my tailbone and to go into my natural place, which is a back bend. So, for me, I have to keep reminding myself to lengthening my tailbone and engage my core. Sometimes I like to gaze toward my bellybutton rather than my fingertips because that helps to remind me to engage my core. The simplicity and complexity of this pose is why I LOVE warrior 1!
Tadasana – Mountain Pose
Tadasana is a seemingly effortless pose, but that can be quite deceiving. Tadasana looks just like the term for standing up, but there are intricacies for optimal alignment. for example, the thighs should be internally rotated to create space to lengthen the tailbone down, which allows the spine to lengthen. Shoulders should be drawn up and back to bring your shoulder blades flat on your back. The chin should be slightly angled down to maintain the neutral curve of the cervical spine. That’s a lot of work for a pose that just looks like you’re standing tall. I find that tadasana is similar to water in that it is easy and soft in the short term, but if you were to hold tadasana for a long period of time, it would wear away at you just like water! I have a friend who went to a class where they stood in tadasana for 45 minutes. Don’t ask me what type of class that was, but apparently she had never sweat more in her life, and she wasn’t in a hot class, she wasn’t even moving! Tadasana is technically an easy pose that is accessible to the general population, but I find it is a pose where you have a huge opportunity to learn a lot about your body. When I started yoga, there was no way I could understand how to internally rotate my thighs, but over time I figured it out in that pose. I learned about my tendency to hyper extend my knees and my tendency to overly back bend. Tadasana is a tricky pose with tonnes of learning opportunity and that’s why I LOVE it!
Uttanasana – Standing Forward Fold
Uttanasana is a simple pose that is pretty accessible to most people and I love it so much. I feel that this pose has so many options for people who may not be as flexible as others. Many people have a goal just to touch the floor, but if their hamstrings are not open enough for that, overly rounding of the lower back will happen. So if that’s the case, bringing hands onto blocks or upper shins will help considerably. This gives the person the opportunity to lengthen the low back as well as the hamstrings. If you are more flexible and can reach the ground without overly rounding your low back, then you have to make sure you are strongly engaging your quadriceps so that you don’t hurt your hamstring insertions. If you are properly engaged, the stretch feels wonderful in both your hamstrings and your back. I personally really like to do this stretch first thing in the morning, it’s like dusting off the sleep and getting you ready for your day. The simplicity and wonderful feeling this stretch gives me is the reason why I LOVE uttanasana!
Upa Vista Konasana – Seated Wide Legged Forward Fold
Wide legged forward fold is one of my absolute favourite stretches. I find this pose to be so “yummy”, it just makes your inner thighs feel amazing. I’m quite open, but I find a wonderfully deep stretch in this pose. I find it to be one of those poses where you can be fully upright and get a nice stretch as well as fully folded forward getting a nice stretch. Whereas in some stretching poses, taking the modified variation makes me feel no stretch whatsoever. This is a pose that I find you can’t push yourself into, it’s almost like hitting a brick wall, for most people they reach a point where they cannot go further and then when you get to that point, just breathe. I love spending a whole lot of time in this pose because the longer you stay in it the more time your body has to slowly stretch and open as far as it’s going to on that day. The lovely stretch this pose offers is why I LOVE it so much.
Natarajasana – Dancer’s Pose
Natarajasana is a very interesting standing balance pose. There are a least six variations (without props) that I can think of ranging in difficulty. The first couple where you are holding same hand to foot are pretty accessible to almost everyone, another couple require more open hamstrings, the last two require extreme back bendiness. I love every variation of this pose. I think it is so beautiful, whenever I teach it, no matter what shape a student takes, it is beautiful. This pose is very challenging to me because of the balancing aspect. I have extremely open hamstrings and back bendiness, so the general shape of all of the variations can be achieved for me, but keeping my balance is definitely where my challenge lies. The challenge and gracefulness of this pose are just some of the reasons why I LOVE natarajasana!
Parsvottanasana – Pyramid Pose
Parsvottanasana or pyramid pose is so versatile, but is one of my favourite hamstring stretches. I feel like this pose is really great for all levels of practitioners. For someone who is a little tighter in the hamstrings, they have the option to bring their hands to some blocks. For more advanced practitioners, they can bring their hands into reverse prayer. I find that this pose is really versatile in that, I have used it many times in a “detoxifying” yoga flow class. By hugging behind your thigh with your arms, you can find compression while playing with a deep breath. I find that it’s almost like squeezing out a sponge, it really allows you to create space and move the prana through your body. The traditional shape of the pose has your back foot flat on the ground at a 45 degree angle, but I love that it’s an option to stay on the ball of your foot if you have trouble squaring your hips. I tend to just hang out in my joints rather than engage my muscles, but in this pose I find I can go deeper when I engage my quads, so I think it is great for reminding me to engage! I find it very hand to lift the arch of my back foot in this pose, so I really enjoy that challenge. All in all, there are so many reasons, both for the ease and the challenge, that I LOVE parsvottanasana!